“If the devil has a pitchfork and the grim reaper has a scythe, agriculture must be a huge industry in the underworld.” – Fuad Alakbarov
Developer: Placeholder Gameworks
Released: 20th February 2020
Death and Taxes is a strangely emotive and comedic mix of game genres, including strategy, simulation and visual novel in which players take on the role of a Grim Reaper, deciding who lives and who dies from an office! Choices often involve moral quandary and can affect things such as personal finances, the relationship between Grim and their boss Fate, and eventually determine the salvation or damnation of the entire human race.
The game’s development was spearheaded by Leene Künnap, with the theme coming from her own personal experiences with death. She explains: “I lost my mother when I was 10. I had no-one to talk to, as western society doesn’t really know how to deal with serious topics… like death. When you do bring it up, people often go quiet or don’t know how to react, because they haven’t thought about it or don’t want to. Learning about the topic from movies, books and cartoons started opening me up. This is why I am now making a game about death, hoping that it will help others like it has helped me.“
It is unclear how long a ‘day’ lasts in the underworld but the game takes place over 28 of them. Along with a random selection of profiles, daily instructions are provided specifying a required number of deaths and listing any other stipulations, such as killing anyone with a medical background. At the end of this period, when the repercussions of all the choices are apparent, the player can choose to conclude the game or start again in a parallel universe, retaining the knowledge and loot they acquired in the first playthrough.
As a newly made bringer of death, performance is reviewed each day, the pay is reduced if conditions are not met and deducted completely if an incorrect number of people die. Money earnt can be spent in Quartermaster Mortimer’s Plunder Emporium on an eclectic selection of functional and decorative desk widgets as well as clothing items that the player can then use to customise their character.
Death and Taxes cleverly intertwines the Grim’s story and decisions with the multiple narratives of the humans whose lives and deaths they are dictating. As shown through performance reviews, desk widgets and news reports, choices have a clear impact, affecting everyday events, changing the course of individual existences, on earth and in the workplace, as well as determining the fate of the world. Players can reach personal success and help build a thriving planet or create hell on earth.
The delivery of the narrative is enhanced by the energetic voice acting of vibrant, odd-ball characters and the clever writing, providing just enough information, creating intrigue and atmosphere whilst maintaining a lighter touch with subtle jokes and silly references to pop culture, games and people.
The game’s strikingly stylised visuals are made up of comic book style artwork paired with a softer watercolour aesthetic. Additionally, the monochromatic greyscale colour palette with pops of red, yellow and cyan perfectly mirror the contrast between the game’s overarching theme and it’s more jovial elements.
Not unlike other aspects of Death and Taxes, the soundtrack demonstrates a similar contrast and ranges from jolly pirate shanties to moody jazz and makes a notable but unintrusive accompaniment to the experience. Due to its popular reception, the OST, composed by Adam Bow is now included in the base game and available as a standalone purchase on Steam.
Death and Taxes is a wonderfully unique actualisation of what could be considered to be sensitive subject matter. It maintains a tasteful modicum of humour that prevents the game from feeling heavy, whilst not undermining the moral magnitude of the choices being made and in this way, achieves the original goal of the project.
The different elements of the game blend together seamlessly, brought together especially well by the delightful and cohesive styling. Additionally, whilst the game can be completed in 3-4 hours, the random profile distribution, branching decisions, multiple endings as well as the option to restart with memories and loot mean it has a fair amount of replayability. Overall, Death and Taxes is a refreshing, fun and slightly morbid experience that I’d gladly recommend.